Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Let there be folk

Well that's quite enough from her (wee scene-stealer!). All this talk of reciting has had me thinking though...about poetry (for a change)...particularly about poetry being read aloud to an audience. There have been other related subjects around too - all the hoo-ha about that very public poetry reading in Washington D.C. the other week for a start (now that's what I call an audience!). I was particularly upset by the news that the fabulous U.S. TV satirist Jon Stewart is 'not a poetry fan' (he revealed this on their inauguration special). Damn (as Stewart would say), god damn! Then there was Robert Burns – everywhere it seemed... people with haggises all over the place (what is the plural of haggis...haggi?). Then there was Jim Murdoch writing about poetry readings. Then there was me going through all my poems...and notes about which poems have been published and heard...and sort of thinking about what to do next.

Going through my reading out-and-about notebooks reminded me how I felt when I first started reading my poems aloud... in public. It wasn't that long ago really (April 2006) but it seems AGES back (so much has happened since then). It started when I went to a 'performance' workshop at StAnza in March of that year and read out my wedding poem to the fifteen or so other poets present (it's on the website – poems/occasions or in the book – p.27). I'd never been one much for workshops but I'd got to a kind of dead end with sending off poems and people kept saying 'you should do performance poetry' so I thought 'well, I'll try this workshop and see what happens next'. I got such a great reaction from the workshop and the poet-in-charge Matt Harvey that I thought 'oh well, maybe I will give this a go then'. I had no intention of becoming a 'performance poet' but I thought I'd get out there and see how it felt.

But where to try it out? Montrose is a small town – no slams here (thank goodness...I'm not really one for poetry slams...too much whooping). There is an Angus Literary Circle but I could tell by the posters in the library that it was not going to be quite the place for me. I'd tried a writers' group (in Aberdeen as it happens) but that had been a drag to get to and quite a drag once I got there too. So where? Where??

Then I had an idea (not a particularly original idea but an idea all the same). We'd been going to the folk club in Montrose ever since we moved to this bit of Angus in 2004 and we'd been gradually getting into more and more folk music and related sounds (I suppose for us it started with the post-rave, gentle acoustic recovery period...Beth Orton etc.). Folk wasn't new music but it was new to me...it wasn't pop or rock or disco or house or what we usually call soul. I'd never known anyone previously who was a big folk fan (or at least I'd never known that I'd known them...). There'd been the Levellers fan with the big boots who wrote reviews of 'roots' music when I worked for a what's on magazine in Leeds in the early 90s. There'd been the folkie guitar player who lived in the flat downstairs in LS12 for a while...but I'd never even heard of Fairport Convention or Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan or any other big folk names of the past that you might mention. When we started going to the folk club in Montrose we would laugh whenever they said 'you'll all know this one..' because we never, ever did. The first time we recognised a song was when Rab Noakes played Radiohead's 'High and Dry'. We sang along very loudly that night to make up for all the other times.

Anyway, our folk club is quite a big one (audiences anything between 50 and 100 people). It has a guest act every fortnight (some fantastic musicians from all over the world and they all play for the best part of two hours) as well as a bit in the middle where local singers and musicians can come along and perform too. I started to wonder if they might let me read a poem or two in amongst the local performers...after all I loved the music (no-one loves anything quite like a new convert!), I liked the mixture of people, I liked the relaxed atmosphere (people sitting at tables with drinks - not in stiff school-assembly rows). So I started with a sleepless night ('what would it be like? Would they hate me?) and then I went and asked Ken who runs the club whether it might be possible...you know...what do you think? He said 'that would be great. We used to have people who came and read poetry but they've stopped coming so no, that would be fine.' Eek. Now I really had to do it!

I started off very nervous. The first few times I had to have a drink to steady my hand (literally) because although I'd done quite a bit of public speaking there's a big difference between speechifying (and boy, can I talk...) and reading out your own poems. These days I drink after reading (because I find my brain works better without alcohol) but to begin with I really needed the Dutch courage. For a start (in a non-poetry environment) quite a lot of people are predisposed to NOT like poetry before you even start (Jon Stewart...you at the back sniggering!) so it can be quite intimidating. Audiences at poetry events are generally polite but that's not the case at music events – why should they be polite to you, they came out for music not some bloody poet! I started in April 06 with the poems 'Self-help shortcuts' and 'Not flying today' (the latter mentions Kate Rusby the folk singer so I thought it might appeal to a folk music audience) and it went well enough to try it again... and again...and again...

Now I suppose I am a regular (though I never take it for granted – it's a music club so I still feel lucky to get the chance to read there). I do two poems a time (or more if they're very short) and it's been a great place to get used to reading in public and to try all kinds of poems (the cheekiest rhyming poem one week and the gloomiest free verse the next...then onto a cheeky free one and a gloomy rhymer!). The audience is very patient and, whilst there are one or two writers present, there are more people who are not and I do like that, I have to admit. It's an audience of folk...all kinds of folk...it's not the somewhat artificial 'audience full of poets' that you get at some events. Maybe that doesn't feel artificial to the people in those audiences but it really feels odd to me! It makes me feel closeted somehow...there's a whole world out there after all.

Over the past few years I have read a total of something like 104 different poems at the local folk club (plus a couple of repeats). I try to keep it varied and interesting and it's a very different experience to doing a show or reading of my own. For a start no-one is there specifically to hear me and I think it's quite good for a person (and a performer) to work that way sometimes. Elsewhere now I have done ten minute slots, half hour slots, whole hour slots – some at festivals, some at music clubs – and since mid 2007 I have also been performing songs with my friend and collaborator Verona as part of the whole...package on offer. I absolutely love doing the performing and I would never have got to the point I am now (wherever that is) without the folk club and its patience with English girl poets (and I am a girl there...there's plenty of people older than me!). I've heard some great music too so it's a good deal all round. Not long ago I heard poet Ian McMillan talking about his early days performing in folk clubs in the north of England (but a few years before me...in the last folk revival). He spoke with such fondness of that time in his life and I know just how he feels. There is nothing like a good night at a folk club – intimate, friendly, easygoing, fascinating, unpredictable.

A while back I wrote a poem about the folk club and it is the one I have read there the most (generally I try and read different ones every time but now and again I think a poem deserves another go or suits an occasion). 'Folk club' is not a fancy poem but then folk clubs are not fancy places...anything but. There is good music (well played), most clubs (like ours) are not run for profit and everyone is there because they love music (plain and simple). I read 'Folk club' there once when the poem was new, once when a regular visitor to the club had just died (he was a devoted music fan) and once at the end of a year's run (the club breaks for the summer holidays). The last time I read it Verona said she could see one or two people joining with some of the words. They knew it off by heart! That was very exciting. My favourite bit is the section about chairs – yes McGuire I said chairs! Anyway, this is it...

Folk club

It's a club full of folk
It's a place you can go
It's music direct
Some quick and some slow

It's a cold, cold night
But it's warm in here
We have sounds just right
We have wine, we have beer
We have fiddles and pipes
And guitars times guitars
Accordions, squeezeboxes
Banjos, sitars
We have sweet young talent
With speed on their side
We have senior players
Who've seen a few tides
We have guests who work hard
While we all lose our cares
We listen as one
Just on separate chairs
There's the odd crunch of crisps
Sometimes just out of place
The high drama of raffle
The look on a face
A surprise now and then
If the guest loses plot
But the locals rise nobly
And fill the long slot
There are sleepier moments
Quiet songs and long days
The vigorous wake-ups
The burns and the braes
There are jokes well spun
And histories told
There is pretty much all life
Some new and some old

It's a club full of folk
It's a place you can go
It's music direct
Some quick and some slow

RF 2006


Kat Mortensen said...

That's a wonderful poem, Rachel. I'm sure the "folk" who hear you read it are very entertained. An audience loves to hear about itself, doesn't it?
I like the line about the chairs too, but "the odd crunch of crisps" is a great one as well.

I've got a book-seller interested in holding an open mic so I can read the poem I wrote about her very fat cat. She wants to hold an event on "World Poetry Day" March 21st.

Sadly, we have no "folk clubs" here, or else I'd be haunting them.



We listen as one
Just on separate chairs

that is GREAT!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I know exactly how you feel with the nerves, I have loads of experience of being in front of an audience but nothing brings on the nerves like performing poetry. I love a mixed audience, I used to love performing at Kin and Silencio, two now defunct Edinburgh music and poetry nights and haven't really found anywhere else quite like them...

Rachel Fox said...

Kat - yes, an audience does like to be part of what you are doing (some of the time). As for the crisps...we have a few audience members who like to eat crisps loudly during the quietest, tenderest ballads! Funnily enough the one guilty party I was writing about is not one of the ones who asked 'is that about me?'

No folk clubs? Loads of the guests we have are Canadians. You need to get someone to set one up!

Susan - yes, I like the chairs bit, as I say. Sometimes a perfect little line just drops out into your lap, as it were! I wrote it, looked at it and thought 'yes, that is JUST what it is like - hurray!'. It could apply to other types of events too of course.

And Juliet...yes, I get more excited than nervous these days but for the first couple of months reading at the club I was fairly nervous. The things that make me really, proper silly nervous are not performance-related - they are more to do with travelling (driving, flying and being on crowded trains!).


The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting to read of your progression through to reading your own work aloud. I too belong an unsatisfactory writing group which doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. Both Dominic and I felt, on reading your book, that your poetry was asking to be read aloud. And that should really be the purpose of all poetry, shouldn't it?

Rachel Fox said...

Well if you go and read Jim Murdoch's Truth about Lies blog just now Weaver you will find quite the opposing viewpoint!

I think poetry can work well in all kinds of situations (reading quietly at home, performed in a pub, shouted from rooftops, read to music...) - it depends on the poem, on the poet, on the occasion. I do enjoy reading to audiences but there are some poems that I don't read out much because they just need a different kind of attention.


hope said...

Susan S beat me to it! I truly loved that line..well done you!

Maybe it's time for your Beloved to get out his iphone again and let you do some recording. After all, Small Girl had to get it from someone, right? :)

Rachel Fox said...

I have been thinking of doing some more recording...maybe we'll get round to that some time soon.

Liz said...

Rachel, very interesting account...especially since I am just about to venture into 'the poetry aloud' territory - the thing is that on writing my poems, I never imagined them read aloud...so have to look anew
on them and get cracking on practising!
I'm about to treat myself to an early birthday present - an !Phone! : )

(word verification: sadderme! oh no! ; ))

Rachel Fox said...

Good luck with it, Liz. I would say these are important pointers:

-enjoy yourself doing it. It's really a new way to love and enjoy the words you have chosen.
-don't speak too quicky! And don't be afraid of silence and pauses. Let the audience keep up!
-make the introduction suit the poem. Think about it long and hard...the introductions can help or hinder the poem, I think, so they are worth getting right. There are poems that can survive no intro at all...but think long and hard about that too.

I'm sure I'll think of other things as time goes by...


The Weaver of Grass said...

Rachel - if you have time today pop to my blog and let us know the luxury you will take to the Desert Island. We have our books and we are setting sail today!

Rachel Fox said...

Mission accomplished, Weaver. See you on the boat.

Unknown said...

A lovely account of the performing side of poetry, which is just as important as what goes on the page. And I do like the Folk Poem, that's in your book, isn't it? Lovely post, Rachel - I love how thorough you are :)

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Barbara. I'm slack in lots of other areas of course (housework, beauty 'regime'...all that stuff that fills up some women's lives...and some men too of course...).
I did put 'Folk club' in the book. It's another one that I knew wouldn't win me any fans amongst the 'proper' poetry world but...I'm not sure that's ever going to be my place! If I'd tried to put together a book to get into the proper zone I would have been taking someone else's route...and it probably wouldn't have worked anyway. You just have to do your own thing, don't you. Sometimes it 'works', sometimes it doesn't. Keeps things interesting!

Fantastic Forrest said...

That does it. I need to go to Scotland to hear you perform. Or you could come here. Then we'd get you on our favorite live radio show, Live Wire! in Portland Oregon, so you'd be exposed to zillions of Pacific Northwesterners. I'll bet it would make Jon Stewart become a poetry fan.

Tell me when your plane arrives. We'll pick you up anytime, day or night!

Dominic Rivron said...

I always thought the plural of haggis was... haggis. Like sheep and fish.

What I like about reading poetry aloud is the audience reaction - it's sometimes quite surprising, and useful. Bits you're really pleased with can go down like lead balloons while things you'd not thought of as particularly special can go down really well.

Rachel Fox said...

FF, oh heck...that's a long way to fly! Maybe if you could get me a private jet...or maybe you'd best come to Scotland. I could do a phone interview on the radio I suppose...

And Dominic - you're absolutely right. Sometimes people react in a way that takes you completely by surprise...fantastic when it happens. And I'm often amazed by which people like which poems.


Dave King said...

Brilliant poem. I am full os admiration.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh Dave...I'd get bigheaded if it weren't for the fact that I know you're nice to everybody!